COVER STORY:Professor Dobbs time machine

Bathed in the shadows of the Transamerica Pyramid, the 700 block of Montgomery is a seminal site in San Francisco Jewish history. In fact, if it weren’t for a young Jewish man who first set foot in the city somewhere nearby, the Giants might have “Yerba Buena” splashed across their chests instead of the familiar “San Francisco.”

The story of San Francisco’s Jews — and the name “San Francisco” — hearkens back to when the block’s namesake, Capt. John Montgomery, cruised his warship into the bay in 1846.

The bay waters lapped at the banks of current-day Montgomery Street then, which is why building excavations often turn up the hulls of sunken ships. Also at that time, the city was known as Yerba Buena (Spanish for “good herb,” a nod to the local foliage centuries before Haight or Ashbury had been paved).

The captain ran the American flag up the pole at the local customs house, and the few hundred Mexican citizens and other societal irregulars residing in the remote outpost were suddenly Americans.

Montgomery put his landing party under the charge of a young officer named Washington Bartlett — but don’t let the name fool you, he was a Sephardic Jew from the Deep South.

Placed in charge of the city, Bartlett opted to tip his cap to the local Franciscan monks by changing the name of the town he’d helped to appropriate. So he switched the city’s moniker to San Francisco.

Bartlett, incidentally, would go on to become California’s first Jewish governor in 1887, at which point he promptly became California’s first Jewish governor to die in office.

“Yes,” says a chuckling Stephen Mark Dobbs, author, professor, historian and raconteur, as he eagerly shares the city’s ironic naming. “A Jewish man renamed a Spanish territory in honor of the patron saint of the Catholic church.”

If the San Francisco Jewish community were a municipality, Dobbs most likely would be one of its officials. Instead, he runs several Jewish philanthropic organizations, including the Bernard Osher Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture.

An afternoon spent with him feels like a sonic excavation of the city’s deep past as he effortlessly unearths San Francisco’s pioneer history (Jewish and otherwise) via a series of tales too good to keep bottled up.

The adjunct professor of humanities at San Francisco State University and author of seven books was kind enough to offer a personal Jewish history tour of the city to j., and we quickly accepted.

A sizable, brass plaque on the side of an old Montgomery Street building an anchor’s heave from Bartlett’s landing reads “On this site in 1849 …” and mentions something about a group of Jews. But we can read no further — Dobbs has placed himself in front of the plaque.

“Not yet, not yet,” he says with a smile. “We’ll get to that in good time.” First, he wants to set the mood.

“You see that building there?” he says, standing on the curb, nodding his chin across the road at a tragically hip, Day-Glo-colored building crammed chock full ‘o telecommunications devices small enough to be swallowed whole.

To the average pedestrian, the vast array of miniphones in the front window evokes nostalgia for the tech bubble of the late 1990s. For Dobbs, it goes back to the ’50s — the 1850s, that is.

He easily identifies the building as a structure dating back at least 150 years (structures on the waterline were saved from the 1906 blaze by fireboats). More specifically, he believes it’s the onetime home of the early San Francisco newspaper The Call, which once featured Mark Twain as a correspondent.

But the 700 block of Montgomery is more than just Bartlett’s foot ladder into California history and Twain’s old stamping ground. On a site somewhere in the general vicinity — local historians argue about exactly where — roughly 50 men and exactly one woman took part in the city’s first Jewish worship service Aug. 26, 1849.

That, incidentally, is what the plaque Dobbs blocked commemorates.

Within a few months of the service, which Dobbs points out was “undifferentiated,” the old cliché of “two Jews, three opinions” would rear its stereotypical head.

The city’s Polish, English and Eastern European Jews would split off and form Congregation Sherith Israel, while the Bavarians and Prussians went on to form Congregation Emanu-El.

More than six decades later, however, another Jew would subtly recognize the site of San Francisco’s first service. Constructing a series of structures on the spot in 1911, Jewish architect Herman Kohlberg subtly altered his plans, emblazoning a series of wrought-iron Stars of David on his building’s fire escapes. They remain there still.

Montgomery’s foray into San Francisco Bay proved to be a trendsetter. Soon, trading ships were sailing toward Montgomery Street — and enterprising merchants did better than pine for them on the docks. Entrepreneurs, Jewish and otherwise, sailed out to meet the ships in the harbor, buying up all they could and then turning around and selling their newly obtained wares to the crowds on the pier.

With a meter maid lurking over his car, Dobbs decides now is as good a time as any to commence on the whirlwind tour of Jewish San Francisco’s yesterdays.

A cable car rumbles across our path, and the professor casually notes that the concept of San Francisco’s favorite icon was devised by a barbed-wire salesman who postulated that trolleys pulled by his wires could spell the horses that literally worked themselves to death lugging loads up the streets of San Francisco.

“There used to be nearly two dozen cable lines,” he says, wistfully, while merging lanes. “Now there are exactly three.”

Cruising by The Palace, Dobbs recalls a charming, quasi-Jewish tale about the grand hotel. On the morning of the great quake, Jewish conductor Alfred Hertz was thrown out of bed, as was the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. The apoplectic opera singer claimed the temblor had ended his singing career, to which a disbelieving Hertz responded that the tenor ought to stick his head out the seventh story window and release “the operatic equivalent of ‘let ‘er rip!'”

The surreal sight of the world’s most famous singer belting out an aria from “Aida” while the city smoldered below was noted by a young San Francisco Examiner reporter trudging by. He went on to write up that story — and a few others in his time that earned him renown. He was, after all, Jack London.

Thousands of tourists still drop by The Palace Hotel to marvel at its grandiose architecture. In the olden days, notes Dobbs, they marveled at newfangled inventions such as telephones, electricity and elevators. In fact, riding an elevator used to be an end unto itself.

Dobbs brings the car to rest, quasi-legally, across from San Francisco’s majestic City Hall. Without bothering to unbuckle his seat belt, he launches into a fascinating history of the city’s Jewish power brokers.

City Hall, incidentally, has something of a Jewish angle. Its dome, taller than the Capitol’s in Washington, D.C., was designed by architect Arthur Brown. Brown created the most stunning domes this side of Yosemite, including, of course, Congregation Emanu-El. So, one can almost refer to City Hall as a precursor to the grand Arguello Street synagogue.

With the seat of San Francisco’s political power as a backdrop, Dobbs asks for the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco that pops to mind. Well, that’d be Dianne Feinstein, of course.

“That’s the standard response,” confirms Dobbs. But Feinstein was far from the first Jewish mayor and political powerhouse San Francisco has seen. (In fact, 19th-century self-proclaimed “Emperor” Joshua Norton was also a Jew and attended Emanu-El’s High Holy Day services accompanied by his mutts, Bummer and Lazarus.)

If you don’t count Bartlett’s term as alcalde — he was, after all, the appointed military head of the city — the first Jewish mayor was Adolph Sutro, all the way back in 1894. And if you thought Gavin Newsom hit it big in the business world prior to taking office, Sutro made the current mayor’s wealth look like Monopoly money.

Sutro — a somewhat familiar name, due largely to the massive Sutro Tower TV antenna overlooking the city — grew incredibly wealthy putting his hydraulic engineering skills to good use pumping water out of silver mines in Nevada. He then bought up mind-bogglingly huge tracts of land in West San Francisco, at one point owning about 10 percent of the city.

Today, Sutro’s personal domain is known as The Richmond and The Sunset, and is, of course, overgrown with houses, apartment complexes, bars and laundromats. San Francisco native Dobbs, however, recalls playing in the area as a boy, when all there was to trip over were sand dunes stretching to the sea.

Despite his vast wealth, Sutro was one of the city’s most progressive mayors, transforming his estate into a public park. He also built the mythical Sutro Baths (which burned in 1966 and are now reduced to twisted bits of steel and imposingly large, algae-choked pools out by Ocean Beach), even constructing his own trolley line so indigent San Franciscans could enjoy his gift for a bargain fare.

Puttering along Geary Boulevard, Dobbs recalls the traditional Jewish neighborhoods of old (and not so old) San Francisco that, in years past, housed the rich and poor who swam at Sutro Baths.

Upper-class and upper-middle-class Jews of yore built imposing Victorian edifices along Franklin and Van Ness. Yet the vast majority of these exist only in memories and sepia-toned photos since the San Francisco Fire Department chose Van Ness as its line in the sand during day three of the great blaze of ’06 and dynamited all the homes between Van Ness and the flames.

If the wealthy Jews of the early 20th century had money to burn, at least it was clean money. Literally.

“Money-washing was a practice among the ‘aristocracy.’ [Scion of longtime wealthy Jewish family] Francis Rothmann recalls her mother talking about the Chinese houseman pressing the currency with an iron,” says Dobbs.

“I know the St. Francis, a very society-oriented hotel, offered a money-washing service. You could have your coins cleaned.”

Less well-off Jews, who had a hard enough time obtaining money, let alone keeping it clean, carved out an enclave in the city’s southeast, near the present-day Jewish Home. And it’s no coincidence that both Congregation Ner Tamid and Adath Israel are in the Outer Richmond.

But the part of the city that would have registered as “the Jewish neighborhood” for most old San Franciscans was the Sutter/McAllister/Fillmore area.

A thriving synagogue, Conservative Congregation Beth Israel, once anchored that ‘hood. But as times — and, more importantly, demographics — changed, the synagogue relocated, merging with Reform Beth Judea and forming Beth Israel-Judea on Brotherhood Way. Beth Israel’s former home burned in 1989, and the site currently hosts the Fillmore Auditorium.

“Even I remember my father taking me to the Ukraine Bakery on McAllister with the Hebrew letters on the window for fresh challah and hamentaschen back in the early 1950s,” says Dobbs.

“And I remember Cohen Brothers on Geary Boulevard, where they had mackerel and herring and barrels of pickles, and they slaughtered the chickens in the back. That was as close as San Francisco came to Delancey Street in New York, Fairfax Avenue in L.A. or Chicago’s Maxwell Avenue.”

But, like the homes along Van Ness, don’t bother looking for the Ukraine Bakery and its Jewish neighborhood. It’s long gone.

A pair of the city’s former synagogues have survived the years. The building on Bush Street previously known as Ohabai Shalome, a late-19th-century splinter synagogue from Emanu-El, currently serves as Japanese American senior housing. And in The Mission, the disbanded Congregation B’nai David is now an eclectic apartment house, complete with stained-glass windows.

Dobbs motors past the very much extant Congregation Sherith Israel, which, he points out, served as the municipal courthouse following the big quake; legendary Rabbi Jacob Nieto wore out the carpets pacing back and forth in the balcony as his congregant, Abe “Boss” Ruef, was found guilty of corruption below.

We come to a rest in front of custard-colored Congregation Emanu-El, pausing long enough for Dobbs to point out the original cornerstone of Emanu-El’s 1864 incarnation. Finding it actually required a physical excavation — of about 20 tot-sized plastic jungle gyms in the temple’s courtyard.

Finally, we cross into the Presidio, ending the tour at the site he never fails to show out-of-towners Jewish and otherwise: artist George Segal’s Holocaust memorial.

Literally a stone’s throw away from melodramatic, equestrian sculptures of El Cid and Joan of Arc adorning the entryway to the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, the memorial is all the more jarring.

Unlike other Holocaust-related works of public art in the nation and world, San Francisco’s is realistic and incredibly graphic: A pile of emaciated, dead male and female bodies lie behind a lone survivor with one hand gripping a barbed-wire fence. A grim look of determination crosses the survivor’s face as he gazes upon the Golden Gate, one of the most majestic views known to man.

“This memorial is as graphic and wrenching as anything in public life,” says Dobbs. As if on cue, a business-suited man saunters over from the parking lot, and stumbling upon the sculpted corpses, his face twists into a visceral expression of shock.

“People argued, why put it here, in Lincoln Park? But the answer is, you want people to see it and be jolted by it.”

Dobbs pulls a dog-eared copy of an Elie Wiesel book out of his jacket pocket and begins to read. The man in the suit stands at attention as Wiesel’s wistful words flutter into an afternoon abnormally windy by even San Francisco’s advanced standards.

Segal’s work is meant to signify the delicate balancing of the past and the future. The survivor’s horrific past was all too evident, but, on this day, the future he was gazing at beyond the fence was cloudy. From where we stood, the Golden Gate Bridge was merely a rumor. Who knows what would come next?

Chances are, things would work out. After all, hundreds and thousands of Jews have prospered here in San Francisco since Washington Bartlett saw fit to change the name of the city.

“This was a place of new beginnings, not just for Jews, but for everybody,” says Dobbs. “People flourish when no one is telling them not to.”


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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.